Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday said he’s “pushing back on the left” by pulling Mississippi out of a federal pandemic rental assistance program and plans to send any unspent dollars back to Washington.

Reeves said “Mississippi’s economy is booming,” unemployment is at a record low, and the rental assistance program has been incentivizing people to stay out of the workforce by offering up to 15 months of rental and utility bill assistance.

“There is a job available for virtually every Mississippian who wants to work,” Reeves said at a press conference on Wednesday. “These socialist experiment programs being pushed from Washington are cruel, like a bookie offering free cash but never mentioning the downside.”

Advocates who help people with rental assistance said Reeves’ decision will hurt Mississippians — many of whom are working but struggling to pay all of their living expenses.

“This is not a good day,” said Gwen Bouie-Haynes, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Mississippi Chapter, which has helped residents sign up for the program. “… This will result in more people living on the street in Jackson and across the state of Mississippi.”

Reeves’s office said the program has about $130 million remaining. How much will be returned to Washington will not be known until all of the obligations are met. The COVID-19 federal rental assistance program started in 2020 with the first round of pandemic funding for states and continued last year with a subsequent funding program. Mississippi was allocated about $340 million in assistance. Reeves said Wednesday that the state has spent about $200 million. He said that 86,146 people applied for the program and that 36,889 were approved for assistance.

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Reeves said he’s ordering the Mississippi Home Corporation to stop taking applications for the Rental Assistance for Mississippians Program on Aug. 15.

Reeves said that early on, the program required people to show proof of unemployment or hardship related to the pandemic, but that was later waived. He said ending the program will not affect applications already submitted or those made before Aug. 15. He said emergency rental and utility assistance programs that existed before the pandemic will also continue.

“My top priority is making Mississippi the best place in the nation to live and to work and to raise a family, and that’s impossible to achieve if able-bodied people aren’t working,” Reeves said.

In February, Mississippi Today reported, based on information provided by the Home Corporation, that 66% of the applicants approved to receive funds through the program were employed, and the majority are Black and female.

The latest U.S. Census data available, for the week ending July 11, showed that 44.5% of adult Mississippians surveyed reported being behind on their rent or mortgage, with eviction or foreclosure in the next two months being either very likely or somewhat likely.

At the same time period last year, 60.5% reported eviction or foreclosure as likely. At times during the pandemic, Mississippi led the nation in the percentage of people reporting likelihood of eviction or foreclosure.

Various groups, such as the NAACP and Children’s Defense Fund stepped in to help Mississippians sign up for the program after the state received national attention on both the local and national level for a slow rollout.

On Wednesday, Reeves praised the Mississippi Home Corp for its administration of the program.

Bouie-Haynes said there are still people impacted by COVID-19 and who are unable or who struggle to pay for housing, rent and utilities. She said the advocacy groups found that high utility costs were a major problem in rural areas.

In addition, she said many of the people receiving assistance are “the working poor” who are employed in jobs that do not pay enough to cover the high costs of rent and utilities. She said her office still gets about 8-10 phone calls per week from people who are trying to to find out where their application stands in the process for gaining rental assistance.

Reeves said some states have exhausted their federal funds for the program, but said he did not know of any other state returning its share of the money to the federal government. It is unlikely that Congress would extend the program to provide additional funds to the states .

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.